Popperians and Marxists

One of the things I noticed is that while I write and give talks lot about the philosophy of science, I get most pushback when I criticize Popper’s falsifiability idea (such as in my Scientific American article The Idea that a Scientific Theory can be ‘Falsified’ Is a Myth: It’s time we abandoned it) than any other thing I say. What is interesting is that I get challenged by both scientists and intelligent design creationists, who are usually on opposite sides of discussions about the nature of science. For example, at Why Evolution Is True, evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne (and his commenters) disagreed with my article. And over at Evolution News intelligent design creationist David Klinghoffer also disagreed with me.

Both seem to want to preserve strong versions of falsifiability but for different reasons. Scientists like it because it has long been a part of scientific folklore that they pick up along with their scientific education, that falsification is how science progresses and is the mechanism by which old theories get overthrown to be replaced by newer and better ones, thus implying that science is relentlessly progressing, getting better and better. Falsification is also used as a rule to keep out of science ideas like intelligent design creationism, whose proponents seek to bestow upon their theory the prestige of being labeled a science. Intelligent design is said to be not falsifiable and is thus not science.

Opponents of the scientific consensus in specific areas such as climate change, vaccines, and evolution, like falsification because they think it provides them with a means to undermine the scientific consensus that they dislike in any field. It allows them to find (or manufacture) this or that result that disagrees with the predictions of the theory and triumphantly claim that the scientific consensus has been falsified and should be rejected in favor of their own pet theory.

But as I show in my book The Great Paradox of Science, the naive version of Popper’s falsification was quickly shown by other philosophers of science to be untenable and the reasons why the scientific consensus is so reliable and should be trusted can be found elsewhere in scientific practice. But that more sophisticated view has not percolated to the general public who hold on to Popper’s original formulation and defend it vigorously.

This reminded me of how, in socialist political circles, some people are derisively described as being ‘more Marxist that Marx’, by which it is meant that they are often more extreme and rigidly doctrinaire about what views Marx held than Marx was himself. I think that it is similar with Popper. People are so enamored with his naive falsifiability idea (it has an appealing simplicity that makes it easy to understand) that they have embraced a version of it that is stronger than what Popper himself held, especially later in his life. He backed away from the naive formulations as he conceded that there was no such thing as pure sense-data, observations that were uncontaminated by theory, and this undermined the naive view.

Given that part of Popper’s motivation for formulating falsification was because of his antipathy to Marxism and his desire to find a definition of science that would exclude it from being considered scientific, it is ironic that he finds himself in the company of Marx in having their respective supporters taking their ideas further and applying them more rigidly than they themselves would or did.


  1. flex says

    I found the same thing when looking a Maslow’s theory of Hierarchy of Needs. What I was taught in college was a rigid interpretation of Maslow’s Hierarchy. Basically, all lower needs must be met before higher needs are considered. I challenged that at the time, but was told that Maslow’s point was that lower needs must be met.

    Then I read Maslow’s work myself, and he says no such thing. Maslow says that unfilled needs lower on his hierarchy get more attention by an individual, but that all needs are present. E.g. a person lacking shelter does not completely ignore the need they might have for social interaction, only that the desire (and effort made) to satisfy the need to shelter is going to be stronger than the desire (and effort made) for social interaction. Which I I have no trouble with.

    Then there is the example of Thomas Kuhn, who has said that he is not a ‘Kuhnian’. Kuhn has said that people have put too much emphasis on his insight into how scientific changes occur, that his observations are only part of the story.

    Or the example of Adam Smith, who had some real insight into economics, but people who say they believe in the power of the ‘invisible-hand’ of the marketplace to generate wealth never seem to have read his book. Particularly the section about how the ‘invisible-hand’ generates wealth for governments to tax. Or how governments should not only tax that wealth but use the money they collect from the rich to provide services for the nation, including roads and schools. I’ve taken college level courses in economics where the instructors with PhDs in economics have admitted to never reading The Wealth of Nations.

    I think there are some general observations which can be made:
    1) An expert will spend a great deal of time looking at, and thinking about, and sifting through their knowledge to generate a nugget of a new concept, or a new way of looking at something. The expert creates a new tool to use to help understand the world. The expert will understand all the nuances of the tool they developed, and know when it can be used, and when a different tool would be more helpful in a situation. The expert just invented a new type of screwdriver to help open parts of reality.
    2) The expert shares the new tool with the world. The expert shares this tool with people who are less familiar with all the tools in the toolbox, but this new tool is exciting and they want to see what can be done with it. So the acolytes apply this new tool to every situation the can possibly think of using it on. In some cases the new tool works well, in other cases it works poorly. And often the limitations of the new tool, or details of how it works, are not well known by the acolytes. Not only are the acolytes using the screwdriver on all the screws they can find; they are using it as a hammer, a chisel, and maybe as a surgical instrument.
    3) The expert spends a lot of time telling people that the tool has limitations, finally gives up and says, “I do not condone the use of this tool as widely as it’s promoted, if you’ve named the tool after me, let it be known that I am not a ‘believer’ in the tool.”

    Many of the people who are now using the tool are not experts, they are not even reading the manual. They see the shiny new tool, and run off to play with it. Without an in-depth understanding of the tool, when they communicate the tool to others, it gets simplified. Which often makes it less useful for the purpose it was designed for. Not always, what we now call Ockham’s Razor, is a much simplified and more useful tool than Ockham’s original design, but usually a simplified tool is less useful. The screwdriver gets simplified into an awl, and it’s no longer even good for unscrewing. It is, however, good for causing pain in others.

  2. Rob Grigjanis says

    In my undergrad and grad years in physics, I don’t remember falsifiability (or Popper) ever being mentioned. Maybe I skipped that class.

  3. mnb0 says

    Falsifiability wasn’t discussed either when I was trained/educated to become a teacher physics. The first time I met this principle it was contrasted with Thomas Kuhn’s criticsm. I pretty quickly realized that, when properly understood, the roles played by falsification and paradigm shifts are not at odds.
    That both Jerry Coyne and David Klinghoffer have the same criticism is not as surprising as it looks like at first sight. I got banned (the first time; I spoiled my second chance too) by Coyne when I remarked that he argued like a creationist. His Why Evolution is True is excellent; like Dawkins (and like MS on European politics) Coyne makes the mistake that he’s good at philosophy too.

  4. mnb0 says

    As for marxism I share Bakunin’s criticism. Marx kicked him out of the First International, Den Haag 1871, for predicting that marxist revolutions would result in dictatures over (not of) the proletariat. Indeed it’s not widely known that the Second Russian Revolution (the marxist-leninist one) was followed by a third one in July 1918 initiated by anarchists and mensheviks ao. The first ones persecuted by Lenin and co (notably Felix Dzerzhinsky) were other left wing groups indeed.
    Thus far Bakunin’s prediction hasn’t been falsified; it only has been countered by the No True Marxist fallacy.

  5. garnetstar says

    flex @1, I really like your analysis. I’ve seen that dynamic play out in all kinds of fields, including politicis. My naive first formulation of what you’re discussed was that the follower/acolytes were never as smart as the expert who first puts together the pieces and formulates the tool. Or, that the followers couldn’t handle the expert’s ideas as flexibly as the expert could.

    I can instance Linus Pauling’s (with others) first-ever description of covalent bonding orbitals, which was extremely useful (we still teach it to freshmen), but which other chemists came to regard as “real”, not as a useful model. (Chemists love to reify theories.) It is said that on one occasion, twenty years after the theory was introduced, and after Pauling had won the Nobel largey for it, that Pauling had to stand up in a conference and remind everyone that this was only a theoretical model. They ignored him and continued to do so.

    I’m an utter experimentalist myself, I never formulate theories, but I use them all the time. I’ve never seen an atom, but I believe that they exist in some form and I explain all my results in terms of atomic theory, theories of bonding, etc.

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